Special needs in the media: Why the neglect?

Anchel Krishna laments the lack of diversity in the media after watching a commercial about motherhood.

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Syona gets around in her walker. Photo: Anchel Krishna

Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary toddler with cerebral palsy.

Thanks to the Internet, we now have round-the-clock exposure to the good, the bad and the ugly. I could argue that this is both a good thing (hello, access to information, funny videos and awesome friends I’ve made online) and a bad thing (cyber bullying, an overload of “upworthy” moments and the ability to have all our worst moments live online forever).

This week, a friend shared this lovely commercial. It’s an ad for a baby carrier and really touches on the personal, beautiful moments of motherhood.

I watched the video about three times. I read the text of the video another three times. Then I sighed. A great, big, blow-all-the-air-out of your lungs sigh.

That specific sigh has become my body’s response to so many things since I had Syona:

  • Getting a refinement to her diagnosis of cerebral palsy.
  • Getting the results of a test or assessment.
  • Finding out that something funky is happening with her muscles, bones, or both.
  • Quotes on the extra gear that comes with having a child with physical needs.
  • Hearing the word “retard” or “spazz.”
  • Seeing something online or in the media that captures the experience of motherhood, yet manages to leave me completely isolated in my experience.

While I could write a post on each of those sigh-inducing moments, I’m going to focus on the last one. I identify with almost all of what is said in the video (well, except for the part about the 8 lbs baby since Syona was just over 4 lbs when she was born), but what they show in the video doesn’t match my reality. It’s filled with parents and sweet, adorable little ones crawling, walking, running and jumping around. I would have loved to see a little kid using canes, or in a walker, or a wheelchair or something else that acknowledges that kids—and parenthood—comes in all shapes, sizes, cultures and abilities. I would have loved to see this commercial doing something that acknowledges the diversity of our parenting experience, especially since they do such a wonderful job of acknowledging the thoughts and emotions many of us have shared. It got me wondering why the media largely chooses to exclude images of little ones who have disabilities.

Is it because the general public can’t handle seeing kids of different abilities? Is it too sad of an image? Does it depict their worst fears in a visual way and that idea is just too scary? As a parent of a child who has a very visible disability let me tell you that our existence is not sad, tragic or filled with fear. We have the same ups and downs as any family—we likely just tend to celebrate the ups a little more. We know that our story could have been different and had an ending that didn’t leave us with our spunky little girl. So whether I’m right or wrong, I feel entitled to having my experience of parenthood acknowledged and included. I want to see parents like me and kids of all abilities in the media.

I know, it’s just a commercial. And I’d like to think that organizations don’t knowingly exclude kids with disabilities. Maybe they just don’t think about how important it is to acknowledge the diversity that exists in our world. But I want my girl, and kids like her, to grow up and see themselves in the world that surrounds them.

What do you think?

11 comments on “Special needs in the media: Why the neglect?

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. My son has CP and I know exactly how you feel about motherhood. Parents of typical kids (or anyone else for that matter) don’t get it unless they live it 24/7. All we can do is to keep sharing and hope people will listen (and not think we are exaggerating how daily events in our lives transpire)

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    • Thanks for the encouragement Twinsplus2 :)

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  2. That’s exactly it. It’s a 90 second commercial. This commercial, for a product your child likely could not use, does not apply to you, any more than it applies to a mom with teenagers or a single white male, nor does the hockey practice or sports car commercial targeted at them apply to you, or someone with Down Syndrome. I counted 28 children in the commercial. The boy in the swing at 1:04 may have been disabled (or he may have just had unusually wide facial features). WHO estimates that 3% of children born in the United States have a congenital birth defect. Out of 28 kids, that would be 0.8 of a child. I think we can assume that in Canada the stats would be similar. Does that bear representing in this commercial? Not really. Of the children born with an birth defect, how many of them could make use of the carrier being advertised? Certainly not any with low muscle tone, or with spastic muscle conditions, which incidentally, includes your daughter. Would the walker your daughter is using in the picture featured above make it into a prime-time TV slot? Or on TV at all? Likely not. It is specialized equipment for a specific audience. The commercial to which you are referring is a generalized, upbeat approach to a mainstream audience. I do not hear you commenting on the diversity with respect to race: as best as I could tell, there was not one instance of a First Nation mother/child, nor an Asian mother/child, which occur more widely in the population than visible congenital defects. Of the 28 children, 19 were caucasian, 6 non-caucasian, and two were hard to tell. Where does that fit into the bigger picture of visible minorities? Again, this is a commercial geared to mainstream North America with mainstream hopes. Having a disabled child is not something that you hope for or see in your future when you are beginning parenthood (see your own post from May 28, 2012). Is it tragic to have a disabled child? Well, I hear people say “I hope it’s a boy/girl” or “I hope he has your eyes” etc. but never “I hope my baby is disabled”. It’s not a part of parenthood that one aspires to, it is the reality that you deal with if you were dealt that hand. You were not “excited” to hear that her head ultrasound had “shadows”. You admit that you felt sad and anxious and I’d bet that you didn’t “hope” for your daughter to have a disability- you hoped she’d be “ok”. Commercials sell hope, not reality.

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    • It’s not just a “90 second commercial.” It’s a conversation worth having amongst parents of disabled children. It sounds like you are discrediting the author’s feelings, not to mention other readers with similar stories. I “hope” you are “able” to have some “empathy” for us one day!

      (How long have you been working for Bebo?)

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      • I don’t, in fact, work for Bebo, and I was not specifically defending their product. But through my career I have been involved in, and had to learn much about, statistics, target audiences, marketing, and spin. It’s all about the image they want to project. And the reality, like it or not, is that products are sold to the majority, not a minority, and the disabled contingent is a minority (albeit a very vocal one). It doesn’t often pay for a company to take the “inclusion image”, if it really won’t make a difference to their bottom line. A sports car commercial isn’t going to feature a toddler seat in the back. It doesn’t sell. Unless it’s a hockey commercial geared to special needs kids, they won’t be featured. It’s a reality. And that is my point to you and the author- it’s not personal. It’s not malicious. It’s straight up, capiltalist, bottom-line reality… sell to your audience. You are not the audience for this child carrier. And the companies often don’t care, if a minority gets fussed and says “we’ll take our dollars elsewhere”, because for their intended audience, the excluded minority’s dollars are so minor, it won’t change their $bottom-line$. Period. It’s economics, not emotion.

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    • Hi Deeb – Thanks for your well-researched comment, reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. The point of the post was not to comment on marketing strategies. It was simply to talk about my response to the ad. Though would there have been any sort of negative reaction to making the ad a little more inclusive? Would it have cost the organization any extra $$? I would suspect not. And – incidentally – parents of kids who have challenges walking often use baby carriers (and diapers as another commenter noted below) much longer. Though we didn’t use this particular brand we did use the ones we had for my daughter for about a year and a half beyond what a parent of a typically developing child would. So parents of kids with needs? That would be a target market in an increasingly competitive environment, which is a current niche marketing strategy many companies are using for products these days…

      Just throwing some counter-thought in there for you to consider. As I mentioned above appreciate you reading and taking the time to comment. I think dialogue – even when we don’t agree – can be a good thing. All the best to you.

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  3. Deeb — Although I appreciate the time and effort you took in researching the various statistics on children with congenital birth defects. I feel that you (in my opinion) have sadly missed the intention of this article. Although having a child with a disability may not be the person buying a ‘sports car’ or going to ‘hockey practice’, the fact of the matter is, that this does not mean that siblings, cousins or parents of the child who is unable to participate will. By representing a community or population that may not be the indented market, simple helps to continue to support the on-going need for acceptance…not to mention…how do you know her daughter will not drive a sports car?

    I find it personally offensive that you assume that people do not intentionally seek out a child with a disability as you indicated “It’s not a part of parenthood that one aspires to”. I can assure you that this comment is simple untrue. I chose my daughter at age three who in medical terms is several disabled. It is a reality I happily chose and would again should the chance ever arise. Would I want my daughters image used in a hockey practice commercial? my answer is hell yes! I refuse to allow mainstream media…and general ignorance for that matter, to make assumptions about what people can and cannot do. If your argument is that its not best practice as who would want to see a commercial with a person unable to utilize that product…then maybe its time to ‘disable’ that mind frame and start to realize the potential in everyone….oh…and for the record..my daughter is first nations…

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    • As I said above, it’s straight up, capiltalist, bottom-line reality… sell to your audience. And the companies often don’t care, if a minority gets fussed and says “we’ll take our dollars elsewhere”, because for their intended audience, the excluded minority’s dollars are so minor, it won’t change their $bottom-line$. Period. It’s economics, not emotion.
      Emotion and logic are often at odds with each other. Emotionally, it would be nice to think that everyone/anyone would feel blessed etc. to have a disabled child. But that’s not reality. Walking into their 18 week ultrasound, “I hope we find a genetic anomaly” or “I hope our baby has a disability” said No. Mother. Ever.
      Case in point- you chose your daughter at age three, That comment indicates that you did not gestate her, some one else did, and some one else chose not to care for her. I’m so glad that you have opened your home to her, as it means you are actually walking the walk, unlike many others. Else, why are there so many disabled kids that wait and wait and wait on adoption lists, while able-bodied or “normal” children are adopted? I will not say that you are “putting your money where your mouth is”, however, because if she is both disabled, and First Nations, it is not all your money that you are putting forward. Both of those categories are heavily funded for foster care or fast adoption. Which brings us to the last emotion vs. logic point- many of these disabled children, that come from disadvantaged or impoverished backgrounds, are relenquished into care because their biological parents do not have the monetary resources to meet the childs needs, yet, as soon as the child is released to a goverment agency, $$ starts flowing and there is $$ for foster parents and $$ for programs/therapy and $$ for you to raise someone else’s child, and feel like a benefactor or rescuing angel. But here’s the logic question: why couldn’t that $$ have been provided to the birth parents directly? Why is there always $$ avaiable for foster parents/adoptions of disabled children, but not the same funds for low-income biological parents? If they had adequate funds, would they have chosen to care for their child after all? Or would they still have given her to you? Because if it was the former, then that child should be with her birth mother, not you, as this is nasty capitalism at work. If it was the latter, then my case in point, plenty of people don’t want a disabled child. And if you hadn’t been able to prove your financial stability and ability to pay for her needs, she would never have been placed in your care. Once again, the bottom line is economics, and the reality of dollars, not “sense”.

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    • I wish your incredible family all the very best! Realizing the potential in everyone is a great, amazing way to see the world and people!

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  4. I find diaper commercials similarly isolating. Given that the parents of children with special needs will often need to buy their products for much longer than typical parents, would it kill them to include a child with physical disabilities once in a while, rather than all of the running, tumbling toddlers who just make me feel sad about all of the things that don’t come so easily to my son? Inclusive advertising might make parenting a child with special needs just a little easier.

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    • I hear ya, Amie. Diaper commercials get me too. This post could have equally been written about any of the diaper commercials I see. Maybe one day (I hope)!

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